Born Kintaro Hayakawa in Chiba, Japan on June 10, 1889, Sessue Hayakawa was an Issei* actor famous in both Hollywood and non-American films. Hayakawa appeared in well over 80 films, and following his film acting career, went on to become a theatre actor, producer, and director. In 1957, Hayakawa received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai, however his prolific career began decades before he was recognized for this role.
Although in the twenty-first century East Asian men are often represented in American popular culture as effeminate, and therefore – according to Western heterosexual patriarchal standards – not sexually attractive, Hayakawa was well-known during the early twentieth century as the first male Hollywood sex symbol. Yet being venerated as a sex symbol was not without its discriminatory elements, as this was often done by typecasting Hayakawa as a villainous and sexually domineering “exotic” man. Throughout his film career, Hayakawa was cast as a man of various ethnic backgrounds, all of which were always presented to Anglo audiences as a “foreigner” who therefore commanded a taboo eroticism. Examples of his constant casting as a non-descript “foreigner” include roles such as an Arab donkey tender, an Indigenous man, a Chinese Tong warrior, and a Burmese ivory trader.
By casting Hayawaka as a sex symbol only so long as he adhered to villainous and sexually domineering roles that rarely ended with a successful interracial relationship, Hollywood continued to emphasize the white supremacist ideals that upheld anti-miscegenation statutes in the United States. Due to the continual typecasting of Hayakawa in roles that depended upon yellow peril and other racist stereotypes, he eventually created his own production company in 1918. By doing so, Hayakawa openly showed his disagreement with the racism that Hollywood production companies upheld during this era of American film.
Hayakawa’s battle to be positively represented in film – even stating that his one ambition was to be cast as a hero and not a villain – forced him to pave a path for himself in Hollywood. Despite receiving negative attention for his so-called extravagant lifestyle, Hayawaka refused to compromise how he chose to live his life in order to make Anglo-Americans comfortable in their stereotypes of East Asian men. Hayawaka is a man who deserves much praise for both his artistic and activist achievements. For this, we here at Historical Hotties tip our proverbial hats to him and other people of colour who have paved the way for future generations.
* Issei, literally translating as first generation in Japanese, refers to the first generation of immigrants in a Nikkei (Japanese diaspora) community. Issei were born in Japan, and then immigrated to various countries such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil.
Andre Soares. Alt Film Guide. “Sessue Hayakawa: Pioneering East Asian Hollywood Star.” http://www.altfg.com/film/sessue-hayakawa-portrayal-asians-hollywood/.
Laberge, Yves. “Review: Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom by Daisuke Miyao.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 25 (February 2011). http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue25/laberge_review.htm.
Saltz, Rachel. “Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met.” The New York Times. September 7, 2007. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9907E3DC143BF934A3575AC0A9619C8B63.